An Unsuitable Job For A Woman.

P.D. James’ (1920 – 2014) first novel came out ten years before her An Unsuitable Job For A Woman (1972), which was, I think, her fifth book. In addition to several standalone works, James (Phyllis Dorothy James, The Baroness James of Holland Park, no less) published a popular series of fourteen mystery novels between 1962 and 2008 featuring Scotland Yard commander Adam Dalgliesh, and the London inspector even factored in An Unsuitable Job For A Woman, which introduced young London private investigator Cordelia Gray. 

The fact is, P.D. James’ Cordelia Gray is a more important character among literary detectives, cops and investigators than she’s sometimes given credit for, bridging a gap between the golden age of mystery’s largely genteel (and often British) female detectives, the handful of 50’s/60’s era women P.I.’s, cops and spies — most of whom resided in glib, period-sexy quickies – and the introduction of a fresh crop of long-lived, popular characters like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Washawski and others in the early 1980’s. But back in 1972, Cordelia Gray was something else altogether: A pointedly unglamorous person with no exceptional superspy skills, sometimes troubled by very human self-doubt, but always bolstered by determination and persistence. 

In the first of only two Cordelia Gray novels, the fledgling 22-year old private detective suddenly assumes ownership of her former boss-then-mentor and business partner’s private detective agency after he’s committed suicide, recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. “Business” is a relative term, but Cordelia promptly acquires an unexpected out-of-town client. She’s tasked with investigating the apparent suicide of an otherwise healthy, handsome and well-liked college student (soon due for a generous inheritance, as well) who abruptly left school, hid out in a remote estate gardener’s shed, and was found dead, presumably having hung himself with his own belt. A telltale clue – traces of purple lipstick on his lips – leads Cordelia and the reader astray, certain that a woman was involved in the young man’s death. That’s cleared up once Cordelia learns he was actually found wearing that lipstick…along with a lacy black bra and panties. But even this is only one more crafty diversion in P.D. James’ mystery.

Hard-boiled or noir-ish, it’s not. An Unsuitable Job For A Woman isn’t a shoot-em-up or action-filled thriller. It’s a classic mystery British mystery novel freshened up for its time. Or, even a little ahead of its time. And more than merely ‘freshened up’. Cordelia’s stuck in a few fixes and there are some exciting scenes punctuating her relentless investigation (trapped in an abandoned and frighteningly deep well, just one harrowing example). The mystery’s resolution – and the very extended coda that follows – all satisfy and seem sure to have left readers craving more from Cordelia Gray. So, it’s surprising that James only wrote one more Cordelia Gray novel, and not till ten years later, at that: The Skull Beneath The Skin (1982). 

I originally read An Unsuitable Job For A Woman a long time ago. Honestly, it hadn’t been top of mind for ages, till I recently stumbled across a handsome trade pb and decided it was time for a re-read. Aside from the basic premise, I’d forgotten enough so that my re-read was more like a first-read. I’d also forgotten how very, very British the novel was, which isn’t a criticism, only an acknowledgment of what a provincial Midwesterner I must be.

Maybe Cordelia Gray didn’t enjoy the multi-book career she deserved. But she did live on, and more about that in another post…

The Maze Agency.

Maze 1 Adam Hughes

If Jennifer Mays of Mike W. Barr’s The Maze Agency could have lingered at one publisher, she might’ve become a more iconic “stiletto gumshoe”. But the fact is, this fun whodunit series bounced around from one company to another in its primary late 1980’s – early 1990’s years, the handoffs continuing all the way through 2009. The Maze Agency’s ‘maze’ logo, designed by Todd Klein, first appeared in 1989 at Comico Comics, where we met Jennifer Mays – she of the trademark blonde forelock – a former CIA agent who bid goodbye to boss Ashley Swift at the Swift Detective Agency to strike out on her own. Mays partners up with armchair detective and true-crime writer Gabriel Webb, and together they solve (increasingly dangerous) puzzling whodunits in mostly self-contained stories with both obvious and obscure clues sprinkled throughout to challenge readers.

Maze 2

The Maze Agency was a Will Eisner Award nominee for best new series in 1989, but soon enough Comico went under with only seven issues released. The title migrated to Innovation Comics for a longer 16 issue run (plus two specials) through 1991, then was published by various outfits including Alpha Productions, Caliber Comics, IDW and finally Moonstone in 2009. Originally drawn by UK artist Alan Davis (with inks by Paul Neary) for a six-page spec story, the series’ art was mostly done by a young Adam Hughes, one of his first full-time series (I think).

Maze 4

Individual issues seem pretty scarce in shops ‘round these parts, but are easy enough to source online. The 1990 Innovation Annual is a good place to start if you want to find out more about Jennifer Mays, her sidekick Gabriel and their law enforcement link, NYPD detective Roberta Bliss. The series captures some of the then-innovative hard-boiled female private eye vibe that had been unleashed only a few years earlier by Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone and, in the comics scene, Max Allan Collins’ (along with Terry Beatty) Ms. Tree. But the real treat is the way Mike W. Barr’s storytelling honors mid-twentieth century pulpy whodunits with real mysteries and perplexing clues, the result being edgy and even a bit hard-boiled without sidestepping the fun factor.

Maze 5 Jerry Bingham

And Then, Marla Came Back.

Kisses Of Death

Henry Kane’s Marla Trent – The Private Eyeful – from his 1959 one-shot crime novel featuring a then-rare female private eye, was re-issued a year later in new cover art, but then presumably vanished into PBO limbo, the publisher and/or readers not interested enough to turn it into a series.

But the almost impossibly accomplished and attractive blonde bombshell did, in fact, return a couple years later, though only as a costar this time in another of Kane’s Peter Chambers private eye novels (there being about thirty titles in that series, I think).

Kisses Of Death came out in 1962 from Belmont Books, a step down in terms of publishers. Like many of Kane’s novels, the case that opens the story turns into something else altogether. Here, a frantic Mrs. Valerie Kiss demands to see NYC P.I. Pete Chambers early on a Saturday morning, certain she’s being blackmailed. He joins the stunningly lovely former actress at an office address he knows well: None other than Marla Trent Enterprises. Marla Trent, New York’s infamous ‘private eyeful’, is much too successful to try to milk the very married Mrs. Kiss out of a few bucks over some compromising photos of her in the sack with a bartender boy toy, though she had been hired by Mister Kiss to follow the cheating wife. But while Mrs. Kiss, Chambers, Trent and her assistant Wee Willie Winkle try to figure out what’s going on, the Mister’s busy taking a head-first header from a high-rise window and commits suicide.

Case closed? Hardly. Months later (and the book spans more than a year and half by my count) a hushed-up investment bank robbery lures in both Chambers and Trent, hired to work as a team (under Chambers lead) to track down nearly nine million dollars stolen just as the Kiss’ marriage ended in that gruesome landing on the Midtown asphalt. In fact, Mrs. Kiss’ none-too-secretive affairs, the peekaboo bedroom photos and even the suicide may all have been part of an elaborate plot to cover up one of New York’s biggest heists ever.

Kane’s Marla Trent is only a costar here, albeit a prominent one, with wisecracking Pete Chambers occupying center stage for most of the novel, including a puzzling subplot dealing with a gorgeous South American doctor the P.I.’s anxious to bed. The complex case takes Chambers, Trent and Winkle to the west coast and ultimately overseas, where the reader is treated to some fairly exciting gunplay in a couple climactic scenes (well-earned, since the reader endured the preceding chapters’ maddening maze of clues, interrogations and Pete Chambers’ seduction routines).

Marla Trent, the Private Eyeful, bows out of Kisses of Death and crime fiction history on a frustrating note, arriving at Chambers’ pad, all fetchingly attired in a sleek summer blue dress and matching white pumps and handbag, to pick up her share of their fee and finally make good on the preceding 180+ pages of flirtation. Black Russians are her specific drink of choice to lose her inhibitions, and apparently, she’s already had a few before arriving. Insisting that Chambers take a symbolic bath, “like washing off all that’s gone before,” Marla changes his bachelor pad’s bedsheets (?!), gets out of her clothes, sips yet another Black Russian and waits for the P.I.  But she’s soon reaching for her things once the freshly bathed Pete Chambers admits that he bedded their original client (and the novel’s eventual villainess) early on in the case.

She sat her Black Russian on the bar. “You lied to me, you bastard, didn’t you? You’re a cheap little man after all, aren’t you? You told me you’d never been with that bitch.” She stepped into her shoes, wriggled into her blue dress, buttoned all the buttons. “Men will never understand women.” She took up her little white bag. “Thanks for the check, and thanks for nothing.” She came to me and kissed my forehead. “It’s been most instructive.” Then she left like a lady without slamming the door.

 I don’t know if men will ever understand women, and definitely don’t know if Henry Kane ever did. Since Kisses Of Death is a Peter Chambers novel and not the “Private Eyeful’s” story, a few more pages follow so the P.I. can bump into a beautiful witness briefly introduced midway in his investigation, and thus, end the novel in suitably swingin’ early sixties style, those freshly changed bachelor pad sheets about to get wrinkled.

Kisses Of Death is no better or worse than Private Eyeful, and no better or worse than countless other coastal private detective standalone and series novels from the mid-fifties through early sixties. Soon enough, British spies would make so many NYC and L.A. P.I.’s passé. As for Marla Trent, the Private Eyeful? While the Ficklings’ Honey West would make it to TV screens and appear in a few more novels, the mystery/crime fiction/thriller genres would only see a handful of other female detectives and some sexed-up adventurers and ‘lady spies’ for nearly twenty years till Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and others finally reinvented everything.

So, where did Marla Trent, the “Private Eyeful” finally go? Evidently, she slipped back into those white pumps to sashay off into PBO obscurity, yet another mid-twentieth century ‘stiletto gumshoe’ who’d have to wait for the field to evolve.

No, Really: Where Did Marla Go?

Private eyeful 1

Not a collector but always acquisitive, I once had four editions of Henry Kane’s Private Eyeful, (none pristine collectibles, mind you) including the striking 1960 UK version with its Denis McLoughlin cover art, the original 1959 US paperback edition with a frequently seen Robert Maguire illustration, a 1960 reissue with Mort Engle cover art, and even a Lancer pb edition from years later (75 cent cover price, so let’s guess late 1960’s or even 1970’s) with a period-sexy nearly nude model posing in no more than a holster for the Howard Winters cover photo.

But a years-ago mishap with apartment windows left open all day while at work – a day plagued by thunderstorms – turned my Private Eyefuls and a number of other books into soggy messes with nowhere else to go but the trash. All I have now is an inexpensive replacement copy of that awful Lancer photo cover edition, a disintegrating book at that, with all but a few pages completely loosened from the binding. Proof once again why it’s best that I never became a collector.

Private eyeful 2

Now, not everyone’s a Henry Kane (1918 – 1988) fan, but I’ll admit to being one. Like writers as diverse as pulp maestro Robert Leslie Bellem (Dan Turner – Hollywood Detective) and eminent literary bad-boy James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential, etc., etc.), Kane’s writing has a uniquely musical quality to it. Not quite Runyon-esque, but sometimes syncopated and sometimes sing-songy, it almost demands to be read out loud, and then could get your fingers snapping once you find the writer’s rhythm. If some critics assert that the prodigiously productive pulp and paperback original writing machine (like Erle Stanley Gardner, Scott Turow, John Grisham and others, originally a lawyer before he was a writer) can be painfully smarmy or annoyingly glib, I’d only counter that countless postwar era mystery/crime fiction writers were as well, the spinning paperback racks crammed with wise-cracking coastal private eyes like Kane’s Peter Chambers back then.

Roughly midway in the writer’s successful series of smart-assed NYC gumshoe novels, Henry Kane paused to crank out Private Eyeful in 1959. Why? Who knows. Prodded by an agent or editor, perhaps, hoping to give “G.G. Fickling’s” Honey West some competition. But let’s be frank: Henry Kane, like so many other writers from the same era, could be dismissive at best and downright misogynistic at worst when it comes to female characters, so the decision to write an entire novel about a female private eye remains a puzzler to me.

Private eyeful 3

Kane’s Marla Trent is the super-successful owner of Manhattan’s Marla Trent Enterprises, capably assisted there by big, smart and handsome William Winkle (AKA Wee Willie) and stern middle-aged secretary Rebecca Asquiff. This is no struggling pair of gumshoes dodging bill collectors. The agency’s offices are plush and well located, the revenue stream steady and lucrative, and as for Marla Trent herself? She’s blue-eyed and blonde-haired with curvy measurements that are incessantly relisted, a one-time beauty pageant contestant but also a Vassar graduate, with a Masters from NYU and a PhD from Columbia. Previously (and briefly) married to Andrew King, then of the FBI and now of the NYPD, 28-year-old Marla Trent is quite comfortable with her luxurious Manhattan penthouse, sports car and seemingly endless wardrobe courtesy of a large six-figure inheritance from her deceased inventor father.

Let’s be clear: Marla Trent is smart, savvy and capable, but most of all, Marla is attractive, as the reader is reminded over and over and over again as characters fawn over her, flirt with her, attempt to seduce her and literally are dumbfounded by her looks, all in increasingly squirm-worthy ways throughout the novel.

In Private Eyeful, Trent deals with one case in the book’s opening pages that swiftly morphs into an altogether different – and more troubling – case, initially helping model and actress Katrina Jurillo prove her ne’er-do-well brother’s innocence in an armed robbery (said brother already doing time in Sing-Sing). But this turns into an even more serious situation when his appeal goes bad and the assistant D.A. is shot dead right in the court room. Marla has to navigate a particularly puzzling (and loooong) list of culprits, lots of red herring clues, goofy coincidences and leering late fifties naughtiness, culminating in a credulity-straining trial scene. Most of the nod-and-a-wink sauciness leads nowhere, though there’s an oddly unexpected romp with Marla’s ex right in his precinct office during the work day, and the novel does end as bedroom hijinks are about to commence (this time with a handsome doctor who popped up late in the tale to facilitate all that strained credulity in the climactic court room scene).

Is it a good mystery, or even good P.I. crime fiction? Well, I’ll let readers decide on their own if they choose to dig up their own copy of Private Eyeful. Henry Kane’s novels are an acquired taste, as are so many postwar private eye series. I’m not about to canonize Brett Halliday, Carter Brown or Frank Kane either. But I happen to have a fascination with the much-too-short list of mid-twentieth century ‘stiletto gumshoes’ from the pre-Grafton and Paretsky era, even if digging up their novels, pulp tales, comics, movies and TV shows can feel like an archeological dig. They’re not all high-art, but for me they are pop-cultural touchstones.

Private Eyeful 4

Like Henry Kane’s Peter Chambers novels, Private Eyeful and the Marla Trent character are sorta fun and kinda sassy in a silly way, period pieces with all of the baggage that implies. That the book is set in 1959, the same year I open my own The Stiletto Gumshoe works-in-progress, is more coincidence than inspiration, and I’d be quick to point out that Kane’s blonde bombshell and my own Sharon Gardner (real name: Sasha Garodnowicz) have no more in common than occasionally running down the bad guys in heels.

So, why just the one Private Eyeful novel? Again, who knows. It may have been no more than a whim for Henry Kane. It might not have sold well enough to interest Pyramid Books in a series. The novel’s much better than many mystery/crime fiction PBO’s I’ve read from that era, and no worse than others, though no one would consider it a crime fiction classic. Maybe male readers preferred their saucy crime hijinks told from a comfortably male POV, while female readers were too smart to fall for sexified cartoons. So, Henry Kane’s Marla Trent had its one shot in 1959 (with reissues) but otherwise vanished.

Or did she? Tune in tomorrow for Marla’s return…

Girl With A Job.

erwin blumenfeld harpers 1942 copy

This Erwin Blumenfeld 1942 photo comes from a Harper’s Bazaar fashion editorial, “Girl With A Job”, depicting ‘career girls’ getting the job done with effortless panache in various workplace and afterwork situations.

But I like to think of this model being a wartime ‘stiletto gumshoe’ working a case…maybe busting up a German-American Bund cell or tailing Axis saboteurs to a munitions plant. You know, just your everyday 1942 ‘career gal’ hijinks. Especially since lensman Blumenfeld, a native Berliner himself, fled the Nazis in the 1930’s, first to Paris, then expelled and interned in Casablanca with his family (they barely got out) and then to New York.

Girl With A Job

 

 

 

 

A Well-Dressed P.I.

vogue 1951 via the retro housewife

You’d rightly assume this 1951 Vogue magazine photo is supposed to be a postwar ‘career gal’ art director or photo editor reviewing contact sheets. But I prefer to imagine a stylish ‘stiletto gumshoe’ going over steamy pics from the prior night’s no-tell motel stakeout on an adultery case soon to go really bad. From The Retro Housewife at www.the-retro-housewife-01.tumblr.com

Kirilin’s “Gun Crazy” Series & More.

vladimir kirilin 1

You’ve probably seen a couple of these photos  (the “stiletto gumshoes” in particular) a zillion times on Tumblr, Pinterest and elsewhere. I know I have. What I don’t see very often is anything mentioning who shot them. They’re by Israeli photo-artist Vladimir “Volf” Kirilin, including some shots here from his “Gun Crazy” and “In The City Of The Moonlight” series. Look for more of the master’s work at 500px.com.

Vladimir Kirilin 2Vladimir Kirilin 3Vladimir Kirilin 4Vladimir Kirilin 5Vladimir Kirilin 6

Thrilled About Thrilling Detective.

Thrilling Detective - Anthos

I’ve visited Kevin Burton Smith’s excellent Thrilling Detective site in the past, but was kinda giddy to see it migrate to WordPress as “The New Thrilling Detective Web Site” so I could more easily follow along. And doing so paid off nicely this weekend when I was jotting down lists of books to order – for curbside pickup at the local indie, direct from the publisher, from Bud Plant, and from the behemoth in Seattle. The Thrilling Detective site ran two posts sharing long lists of mystery/crime fiction anthologies with links for most (or all?) right to Amazon, many being OOP titles.  I tried for six, but got a bounce-back on one later, it being no longer available. But five’s a start, and my to-be-read endtable is woefully empty, having foolishly not stocked up before the great sheltering commenced. The Amazon items may take longer than usual to arrive, but the others look like they’re speeding my way now, and the indie pickup books should be in hand tomorrow and are desperately needed.

If you find things that interest you here at The Stiletto Gumshoe’s lair, then you’re going to find many more and much better items of interest at The Thrilling Detective site. The link’s right below…use it now. And more about the gems I nabbed via Smith’s site will follow in another post…

https://thrillingdetective.wordpress.com/

A Stiletto Gumshoe Left Her Heels Behind.

Paolo Roversi 1998

Hardly seems like a customarily artful Paolo Roversi fashion photo without a flavor-of-the-month model cavorting in costly couture in front of the camera. This 1998 Roversi image makes think of a ‘stiletto gumshoe’ wisely leaving her heels behind when she raced off after the bad guys, but you could probably come up something much more ominous.

 

 

Not Maguire, McGinnis, Schaare or Lesser, Maybe. But Still…

This Girl For Hire

Honey West? You name it, I have it: Multiple editions of the original Gloria and Forrest Fickling novels from 1957 through 1972. The complete 1965-66 TV series DVD set. Moonstone comics from the early not-too-bad ones through the sillier stuff and used to have a totally beat-up copy of the 1965 Gold Key comic. Okay, I don’t have the Honey West Ideal board game or the Gilbert ‘Private Eye-Ful TV Figure doll or accessories. The novels seem pretty easy to locate and usually affordable, whether the nifty paperback originals, later reissues or various and more recent trade pb editions (all of which may or may not be fully authorized, I don’t know).

A Gun For Honey

Ordering some items from the online behemoth in Seattle this week, I saw several Kindle eBook editions of the Honey West novels from Deerstalker Editions, which seems to be a division of California-based Renaissance E Books Inc. (though I wasn’t able to dig up much on them, only some blogs that have been inactive for quite some time). Eight Honey West titles are listed in the eBooks’ cross-sell copy, though I only see these four mid-2019 releases available at this time. What’s it all about? Who knows, and honestly, I’m not really an eBook person, aside from the occasional how-to title. Still the covers for these – love ‘em or hate ‘em – seem to use original art, though I’ll remain partial to the iconic images of Anne Francis (1930 – 2011) or the original paperback series’ Harry Schaare, Robert McGinnis, Robert Maguire and Ron Lesser renditions.

Girl On The Loose

I have a lot to say about Honey West – the character’s importance in postwar era paperback detective novels, the groundbreaking but still flawed short-lived TV series, the more contemporary comics, both good and bad, etc. The Fickling’s creation was flawed but fun and unquestionably influenced still more important things to come some years later. Whatever the Honey West character’s and novels’ shortcomings may be (and there are some), we’re talking about the most familiar ‘stiletto gumshoe’ from that era. But,  it’s all more than I have time to cobble together right now, so we’ll have to table Honey West talk for now…

Honey In The Flesh

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